January 4, 2016 kb

Oh, Morals: Fallout 4 and Working Through Threat

Bethesda’s Fallout 4 has received a number of criticisms for its morality system–or rather, its lack thereof. One of the staple features of previous releases in the Fallout series, “karma” (a measurement of morally good vs morally bad decisions) required a sort of moral engagement with the world of the game.

As anyone who’s played an open-world game like those produced by Bethesda will know, the endless, infinite gameplay can become rote quite quickly, all the more so when there seems to be no repercussions for actions, no emotional investment in the game beyond the main quest. The inclusion of morality systems were a way of carrying the narrative forward–not only do you, the player, get to choose how you interact with other NPCs through conversation, but your speech and actions have a an effect on how you play the game, not just how the games ends.

Morality suspends the idea that all actions taken in a game is a “means to an end” or in fact are not a means to an end because, in the end, they don’t affect the storyline anyway; instead, all actions are an end to in themselves. Killing an innocent NPC has a real in-game affects—after all, there’s an immediate response on two levels—first, within the game world, where characters will react to your actions and second, within the interface of the game itself, with will often indicate that the action was morally wrong (or ambiguous or even, sometimes, an okay thing) via a symbol of some sort.


Good Karma: “Shield of Hope”

Bad Karma: “Betrayer”

Neutral Karma: Wanderer



Unfortunately, with the release of Fallout 4 and the revelation that the Karma system had been essentially removed, critics of the game have criticized it for its lack of immersion. However, what if the morality system in Fallout 4 actually is still there, simply enacted in a way that’s closer to real-life?

Not long after the release, rumors began to spread that settlement NPCs could, in fact, be more than they appeared. Reports began to spread of various, random settlers attacking settlement resources or other settlers, stealing from storage units, and a whole range of other heinous crimes; what was worse, however, was the discovery that, upon killing those settlers, synth components could be found in their inventory. In short: anyone who wasn’t a named NPC could be a synth. And any synth might decide to one day up and kill everyone in your settlement.

Videos appeared on Youtube entitled “Fallout 4 SYNTH settlers: how to notice/get rid of them”. Theories and “how to” instructional manuals appeared giving advice on how to purge settlements of the presence of these synths. Suggestions to deport all suspected synths to barren settlements far away from “civilization,” or to simply kill suspected synths, consequences be damned. Panic had, evidently, taken ahold.

The problem for many was and is that synths are a potential threat: a number of gamers have reported settlements being attacked and settlers being killed by these imposter synths. The threat to the safety and happiness of settlements is impetus enough to attempt to preemptively strike out against possible synths in whatever ways possible.

For me, however, the problem was different. Reading the blog posts, a similar panic gripped me but not for the same reason. One of the main plot points of the game is deciding whether or not to help synths, who have been feared in the game world by non-synths for the longest while–partially because synths have been used as super-soldiers by the secretive Institute, and mostly because synths can replace others. They can take on the features of anyone, take one their memories, and essentially “become” them and act as a spy. In this post apocalyptic world, post-nuclear war society, chaos still reigns in many ways. But the threat of being replaced and surveilled is still the greatest fear of everyone in this “society.”

But my panic grew as players exiled and outright killed settlers because no one questioned their actions. That is, for the most part, commenters did not realize that their reactions to this supposed threat echoes the very same rhetoric that has been internalized by the individual police officer who shoots a young black boy for playing with a BB gun, has been woven into the legal structure of many Western societies in response to “terrorist threats” (for example in the post-911 era or even in Japanese concentration camps in the US in the 40s), is espoused by figures like Donald #Drumpf–to put it “lightly”: players are accepting the same racist/homophobic/misogynistic/xenophobic/etc logic that we see in real life as reason to further perpetuate the same racist/homophobic/misogynistic/xenophobic/etc policies in the game world. Some might argue that of course this is the case: in a game like Fallout where morality systems aren’t in place to check a player’s actions (like it would be in the real world), how can anyone expect a player to react as they would in real life? But such an argument is terribly illogical given the fact that the real world is even messier than the one you can find in the coding of Fallout 4. Is it such an impossible thing for a person to–without some external, finger-wagging figure watching over their shoulder–make a decision that would allow everyone in their game world a fair chance?

It might seem ridiculous to get worked up over something of this nature, but I think it bears some deep thinking on our parts. There have been numerous charges against liberals (mainly white, though the charger applies to minorties too) to stop practicing laissez faire racism–in other words, stop advocating for equality and justice for all while still privately maintaining the habits, and thoughts that perpetuate racism and violence against minorities.  In order to dismantle these hierarchies of injustice that we have seen throughout history and today, we need to be constantly vigilant against those actions and reactions that simply reinstate the status quo. The Fallout 4 synth conspiracy is a perfect example of this: if players can’t check themselves when it doesn’t matter, how do we expect to do it when it does? When black lives matter?




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